At the 35th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in Marietta, Jewish singer-songwriter Debra Cohen said she was hoping to make a connection with the mostly African American and Christian audience with her performance of the English version of “Rock of Ages.” The event, held on Monday, Jan. 16 at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, was a program of the NAACP of Cobb County.
Cohen sang and played the guitar against a backdrop of a large photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 21, 1965, leading voting rights protesters on the famous five-day Selma to Montgomery, Ala. march and with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel near his side. Cohen said she wanted the audience to know that a Jewish leader was among those that believed in the cause and marched in the forefront with the civil rights icon.
Cohen auditioned for the MLK program after receiving a flyer in the mail that came to her Marietta home calling for local talent to perform at this celebration. A member of Ahavath Achim synagogue, she says she was motivated by an initiative called “kulanu” (meaning “all of us”) that her synagogue is participating in to find non-traditional ways to combat antisemitism. AA is one of about a half dozen synagogues in Georgia working with the ADL to create a task force of volunteers from each congregation for the project. The idea, she explained, is to find the cohort’s strength, and in that way, they become equipped to be effective ambassadors in the local community.
“My strength is that I am a singer/songwriter, and I used that as my chutzpah to perform at the MLK event. I knew I’d be a minority, and it was kind of scary to go into a group of people that I don’t know much about,” said Cohen.
In her introduction, speaking to the program’s theme, ‘Together We Can Be the Dream,’ Cohen explained that the song is “part of our [Jewish] heritage and that when you listen to the lyrics you discover we are suffering, and we have suffered. [In this way] I want to pursue Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of people being judged by their character, not ethnicity or religion.” She added, “I wanted to present similarities that Jews have with Black Americans – affliction with slavery and persecution. I wanted them to know they’re not alone.”
Cohen estimates that several hundred adults and students were in attendance, including members of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and other elected officials who were recognized. The program was hosted by WSB-TV reporter Fred Blankenship. After Cohen’s performance, Blankenship commented to the audience, “I love the combination of story and song because once you relate to that story, it becomes your story.”
At the luncheon afterwards, Cohen, who retired from a high school teaching career in 2015, said she enjoyed commending some of the students who participated, and she was especially pleased when a Hispanic man asked her for the song, saying it meant a lot to him.
Although she says she was a rock musician in the ‘80s in Boston, it was mainly after a trip to Israel in 1999 that she has been on a quest to find her calling. She described the experience performing at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration event as “astounding” and thinks she is just now, at age 68, finding her musical purpose — “to feel the words I’m singing and develop empathy and compassion for what I’m singing about and get people on board with whatever their gifts are.”
A video of Cohen’s performance can be found on YouTube at https://youtu.be/5kKSgDQwWCs.